The State Library of Victoria: The Dome & Ned Kelly

In my last post I showed you the beautiful Victorian era State Library of South Australia and now I want to show you the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne (the state capital of Victoria). A much larger and grander building, the library is a classic example of Victorian era and post federation architecture.

State Library of Victoria Melbourne Australia
State Library of Victoria

Construction of this library began in 1854 (first opened for use in 1856) and continued into the turn of the century with various building additions in the 1860’s and 1870’s through to 1913. The library “building” actually consists of what are essentially 23 buildings in total. The jewel in the crown of the library is the spectacular La Trobe Reading Room (opened in 1913). This room is dominated by a high dome that fills the room with vibrant light to create a very stunning place.

La Trobe Reading Room Dome State Library of Victoria Melbourne Australia
The Dome of the La Trobe Reading Room
La Trobe Reading Room State Library of Victoria
La Trobe Reading Room

More than just a library, the building is also a museum that has permanent and visiting exhibitions. The halls and walls around the La Trobe Reading Room are a treasure trove of history with historic books and rare artifacts from Victorian history (Victoria became a separate colony of Great Britain in 1851 and attained statehood upon the federation of Australia in 1901).

Ned Kelly the day before his execution Nov 1880
Ned Kelly 1880 (Source: National Archives of Australia)

For me the most prized pieces of history in the library are artifacts related to the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly (born in Victoria in 1855, died 1880). His criminal life began at just 14 and he went on to become one of the most famous and most wanted bushrangers in Australian history (kind of like a Highwayman and bank robber rolled into one).

Kelly’s “last stand” during a police siege on June 26th, 1880 at Glenrowan is probably the most famous incident. He and the “Kelly Gang” (his brother Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne) basically took over the town and had planned to derail a special police train and shoot all the policeman onboard. Although the police were warned in advance and stopped the train, Ned had a formidable surprise planned for the police – the previous year the gang had forged a crude set of thick armour (made from a farmers plough) to protect them from police gunfire. This armour offered not only protection (bullet proof) to the gang it also created somewhat of a fear factor as they made them look bigger and more sinister (Ned charged at the police yelling abuse with guns blazing!). Fortunately for the police the armour did not fully cover all body parts and was very heavy (45kg), making it difficult to move and see freely. Eventually all the gang members were killed with only a badly wounded Ned surviving.

Ned Kelly last stand Glenrowan 1880 armour

Upon capture, Ned’s fate was sealed. He stood trial and was sentenced to death by hanging in the gallows of the Melbourne Goal (hung November 11th, 1880). Supposedly he uttered “Such is life” as his last words.

Ned Kelly Captured 1880 Ned Kelly in the court dock 1880

Ned Kelly in the Melbourne Goal gallows 1880

Ned Kelly the day before his execution in Melbourne Goal 1880
Ned Kelly the day before his execution in Melbourne Goal 1880

Although Ned Kelly was an outlaw and a stone cold killer (he shot dead 3 policeman – Michael Kennedy, Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan at the infamous Stringybark Creek on October 26th 1878), he also strangely became somewhat of a folk hero to many people as he stood up to authority and was seen as an underdog championing the rights of the downtrodden! His famous 1879 “Jerilderie Letter” is on display at the library, this was Kelly’s 8000 word manifesto describing why he committed his crimes (unjust police prosecution of himself and his family).

Over the years pieces of the suits of the “Kelly Gang” armour ended up being taken as souvenirs by police, private collectors and public institutions, but piece by piece they have been recovered and are now in various museum collections. Ned’s armour is on display within the State Library of Victoria (his body armour, helmet, rifle and a boot) along with his death mask (used back then to study the shape of a person’s head and it’s links to character traits – known as phrenological analysis. The police also used them as examples of what can happen to you when you defy the law!).

Kelly Gang armour and rifle 1880 Ned Kelly
Kelly Gang armour and rifle 1880 (source: State Library of Victoria)
Kelly armour 1880 (State Library of Victoria)
Kelly armour 1880 (Source: State Library of Victoria)
Ned Kelly Armour 1880 State Library of Victoria
Ned Kelly’s armour
Ned Kelly Death Mask State Library of Victoria Melbourne
Ned Kelly’s Death Mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly’s Death Mask

The library is free to visit and if in Melbourne I thoroughly recommend you take the time to look around and enjoy all it has to offer. The armour of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart is displayed at the Victoria Police Museum in Melbourne’s World Trade Centre (having just been there I can also report that this is a very interesting place to visit too) and that of Joe Byrne’s is in a private collection (which is occasionally displayed publicly).

Dan Kelly armour Victoria Police Museum Melbourne World Trade Centre
Dan Kelly’s armour – Victoria Police Museum
Steve Hart bushranger armour Victoria Police Museum Melbourne World Trade Centre
Steve Hart’s armour – Victoria Police Museum
Joe Byrne's armour Kelly Gang
Joe Byrne’s armour – private collection (photo by Matt Deller)

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